The first thing you might notice in South Australia is how friendly everyone is. The second thing might be how quick everyone is to tell you that South Australia is Australia’s only non-convict colony... Is that still a thing?!
However it was still an Englishman who first made it over and laid claim to the territory - followed a mere 3 weeks later by a clearly more lackadaisical Frenchmen. To think South Australia was so nearly a French colony - and no doubt we’d be hearing all about how the proliferation of quality winemaking here is all down to their French roots. Mais non! Coonawarra has an English man, named John Riddoch to thank for first spotting its vinous potential, while Barossa is very much down to Germanic Lutheran refugees.
John Riddoch first planted vines here way back in 1890, land which would later become part of today’s Wynn’s Estate, still one of the most famous, internationally recognised producers, which has made Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon one of Australia’s classic wine exports.
WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT COONAWARRA?
So what is it about Coonawarra? Coonawarra is a story about terroir, of how land and wine connect. Millions of years of geological activity on planet earth leaves us with little pockets of curiosity and earthly anomalies like Chablis’ famous Kimmeridgean soils and Champagne’s chalky basin. In this case, a humble, narrow ridge of brick red, iron oxide-rich soil, atop a million year old sea bed.
The broader area is known as the Limestone Coast, and like many of the great wine regions in the world, it has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve that create its potential as a wine growing region. Standing sweatily next to the vines on a hot December day, its hard to believe, but it’s a much cooler region than you might think. In fact being only 100km from the coast it benefits from a maritime climate with cooling breezes and summer cloud cover providing relief.
Not only that, but the cold Antarctic water that flows into the Great Australian Bight, upwells close to the surface through the porous limestone bedrock. You’ll find every region has its mitigating factors, like the black slate that radiates heat overnight, keeping the vines of the Mosel Valley warm; or the unusually (viticulturally speaking at least) high altitude in the Uco Valley, chilling the vines down overnight from the powerful Argentinian sun.
Coonawarra and The Eucalypts
Sounds like a 50’s band doesn't it?
Because Terroir isn’t just about soil of course; it’s everything that makes up a sense of place. And Coonawarra would not be Coonawarra without its Eucalypts.
Menthol, or mint is a note found in Cabernet Sauvignon, following behind blackcurrant and green bell pepper in terms of characteristic ‘tells’, the giveaway aromas that help you triangulate a grape variety - if you're into blind tasting party tricks.
Aussie Cab Savs are particularly renowned for often displaying a certain menthol-y, Eucalyptus note, and none more so than Coonawarra.
There’s a lot of debate as to how that aroma is developed. How terroir comes to be expressed in a wine is one of the greatest mysteries and most romantic, philosophical questions for a wine lover. So when I came across a particularly menthol-y example from Balnaves of Coonawarra earlier this year, I was began looking into it. It seems there are a few ways this particular one can be explained.
How does Eucalyptus / Menthol character end up getting expressed in a wine?
The compound Eucalyptol (1,8-cineole) is quite a powerful one, it doesn't take much for us to pick up on it. There’s a possibility it travels in the air, and comes to rest on the grapes. It’s also possible that it’s in the earth itself, a residue from the vineyard’s past life which finds its way into the grapes through the vine’s sap system. However, the idea that stuff in the soil is directly expressed in a wine has been long debated. (Ref: the mind f*ck that is - Minerality).
In fact, it seems to be a combination of the Eucalyptol compound found on the grape’s skins, and a few gum tree leaves and twigs ‘MOG’, ‘matter other than grapes’, that can sometimes find their way into the fermentation tank, despite a winemaker’s best sorting efforts. (Particularly if you imagine with a large scale machine harvesting as opposed to small scale, hand harvest.)
As you can see from this study from the Australian Wine Research Institute, the presence of the compound in a wine is correlated with proximity to gum trees, and the longer a wine spends fermenting on the skins.
To me, the thing that defined the Cabs we tasted on this trip was more of a dried leafiness rather than a menthol-iness. Not herbaceous (something associated with cooler climate cab savs, where a certain under-ripeness comes through), but a richer, more earthy, dried leaf character. It was present to varying degrees in every single Cab Sav we tasted, from entry level to premium, and from young to old (even and especially the 1993 Cab we had with dinner). This surprised me until I remembered how relatively small and topographically uniform a region like Coonawarra actually is!
HOW TO DO COONAWARRA
If you’re travelling from Melbourne to Adelaide, you’d be mad not to treat yourself to a grapey little excursion. It’s no secret that I’m no stranger to planning a day amongst the vines, so let me share with you my tried and tested recommendations for a perfect day on those Terra Rossa soils!
How Long to Spend?
You know what? One day should do it - unless you really want to sample loads and loads of producers and make a weekend of it, one full day is perfectly sufficient. It’s a small wine region, and everything is very close by and accessible, so we’re not talking huge driving distances.
Where to Eat?
For lunch, try Fodder | Ottelia. A restaurant combined with a cellar door. The service is so friendly and the food was seriously good; fresh, inventive and much of it made with veggies from their garden. They also do wood-fired pizzas if the wine tasting has given you the munchies. Don’t forget to leave room for dinner and remember a lashing of hunger is supposed to sharpen your sensory acuity!
Book ahead or be prepared to wait a bit; but it’s totally worth the wait.
For Dinner, the pick of the bunch is Upstairs at Hollick. Another boutique winery, this one has a restaurant with a picturesque setting overlooking the vines. They have a wine list featuring their own wines, of course, plus some other local wines and a small handful of clearly very carefully selected wines from around the world. They also have a small selection of ‘museum wines’; older vintages of local wines which is what we decided to do after a day of tasting young vintages. Another nice touch is that they serve their own wines by the half glass, which means you could create your own little wine pairing. They also have a 4 course degustation menu available with expertly paired wines if you're going all in. I highly recommend the twice cooked Berkshire pork belly!
Do you need a car?
Yes. Spittoons are your friend. If you need a transportation service for dinner, or for your winery visits, give Coonawarra Discovery a call, which organises tours and experiences: 0419 373 450
Which wineries to visit?
There are so many to choose from, where do you start? Accept you’ll never be able to do them all justice, and remember that you are here to enjoy yourself, and have fun, so don’t feel the pressure to keep visiting more and more wineries, just because they are open. I recommend 2-3 plus engaging in local wines with your meals so you feel you’ve sufficiently immersed yourself in the area.
Wynn's Coonawarra Estate
We started with Wynn’s because that seemed like the proper thing to do. After all it is the original and biggest Coonawarra Estate. Come here for a benchmark in terms of the wines and take advantage of their informative cellar door exhibits (soils, climate, history) that provide a good starting point for your day. We picked up a bottle of their (cellar door exclusive) Pedro Ximenez dessert wine which was too delicious to leave behind.
If you're interested in how Coonawarra Cab has fared through the decades, there’s a lovely article on Jancisrobinson.com with luscious descriptions from a vertical tasting of Wynn’s wines through the ages, from the ‘mushroom risotto with a nutty Madeira sweetness’ of the first Wynn’s bottling in 1954 to ‘sweetly meaty’ in 1973 through to ‘leafy’, ‘coffee’ and aromatic in 2004.
Having checked out the big and traditional, I recommend to next check out something small and contemporary. Penley Estate is exactly that, with a sweet story to boot.
Judith Penfold Hyland of the Penfold’s family (Aussie winemaking royalty perhaps?), met Reginald Tolley, of Tolley’s Brandy, which used to be huge back when Brandy was big business.
Their children, two sisters, created Penley Estate, obviously deciding that all that grape-related family pedigree couldn’t go to waste.
Their winemaker is Kate Goodman, making this is a distinctly female affair.
They have a really cosy cellar door and some awesome wines to taste, particularly their Eos (Cab / Shiraz) and Helios (100% Cab Sav) from their High Estate range.
I also loved to see their 100% Cab Franc offering - ‘This is what happens when your marketing person is a 24 year old!!” our cellar door host joked, brandishing an elegant bottle with a funky but pretty-in-pink label design, and a closure sealed with barbie-pink wax. From the beautiful, limpid crimson colour of the wine to its lifted, feminine nose, I can totally see why she went in that direction.
A little insight into just how much this is a boutique outfit came from the host casually revealing how the marketing lady couldn’t find pink wax on the market, so she bought white and dyed it pink herself, so convinced she was that that’s what the wine suited.
Balnaves of Coonawarra
If wine without a lie down and some cheese is simply unthinkable then check out Balnaves of Coonawarra. In my experience this is one of the mintiest Cabs so worth a look from that perspective, but they also do a cheese picnic lunch box at their cellar door, which you can grab, along with a picnic rug, and go and lounge about amongst their rose bushes. In the winter, there’s an open fire to get you in the Cab Say mood!
Do you need to pre-book?
Not for wineries so much as for the restaurants. In Australia is all about the cellar door, you simply rock up, say g’day and see what wines they have on for tasting that day. Some wineries do structured, guided tastings or packaged experiences, but in Coonawarra, I found it’s mostly about the relaxed cellar door vibe. This is refreshingly different from some old world regions where the experience is much more formal and pre-bookings are essential.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Coonawarra Units which is connected to the hilariously named (and aggressively red themed) Chardonnay Lodge. Nothing fancy, but perfect for a night’s stop over as it’s basically a little motel. Comfortable, clean and excellent value, looking out directly onto the vines (pictured below!).
So there you go, my top tips for a glorious day in Coonawarra!
Thanks for reading - let me know if you’ve visited any awesome wineries there that I should add? And of course, if you’re planning a trip and want any more advice, just let me know!